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S’no Thank You January 24, 2016

Posted by The Typist in Fargo, literature, The Journey, The Narrative, The Typist.
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I was in DC in January ’87 and remember the wonder of my first sled ride  a few weeks after my arrival just after New Year’s. I left New Orleans New Year’s eve for the three day drive, knowing an early start New Year’s morning not very likely.  The first city-closing snow a fellow roomie and I stole our hostesses clothes moving boxes for rude sleds and trudged to the other Washington Monument, the Masonic one, and tried to slide. Children took pity on us to learn we had grown well into our twenties without ever having sledded down a hill,  and cheerfully lent us sleds and disks for  turn or two. As we trudged home we watched a lone police car struggling along, and first heard the sound of snow chains.

My only prior experience of winter was a trip to Western Massachusetts with my girlfriend one year, driving the turnpike through a fresh snow wonderland, rural houses back up toward the low mountains along the road with their great stacks of wood and smoke threading up from their chimneys, that turnpike verse of James Taylor’ Sweet  Baby James ringing in my head, the idealized winter of nonsectarian holiday cards. Somehow in the years between then and my arrival in D.C. I had forgotten the lesson of being blown off my feet on an steep and icy Boston sidewalk.

That memory came back to me in the terror of the Washington, D.C. Super Bowl Day storm that first year. We rode the train in from Arlington and walked and slid on the prior storms melt ice  slick from Union Station to the park at the far end of East Capitol in our Southerners’ idea of winter coats (a lined London Fog is not a winter coat) and regular shoes, sneakers chosen for traction, but without so much as rubber mucklucks to put over them.   We preceeded to drink much beer throughout the hours of the Super Bowl party as the storm rolled through, dumping a massive slush of most unfluffy wet snow. We proceeded to try to walk back to the station in the howling dark, wading through the wet cold stuff which quickly soaked our shoes and everything exposed below the knee. There was not another soul or a moving vehicle in sight. As we began to lose all feeling in our feet and consider whether we would actually make it to the station alive and if pounding on doors begging admittance might  be our only hope of survival, a heaven-sent DC Metro bus came slip sliding sometimes side to side  but mostly forward down East Capitol, struggling to get back to the garage, which picked us up and took us to the station.

By the time I arrived in NW Minnesota for the horrific winter that in melting drowned Grand Forks (whose officials rushed to New Orleans’ aid with their experience in ’05) I had learned winter’s lesson well. “Been in the ditch yet?” was a common question, but I could always answer, “nope.” Detroit Lakes was small enough I could have snow-shoed to work in a pinch, and I remembered my first nerve wracking drive back to the airport from my future in-laws small North Dakota  town through a ground blizzard. A ground blizzard is something like what we southerners know as a ground fog, if that ground fog were being run to ground  by the hounds of hell. The invisible road was a matter of long pratice, muscle memory and the steel posts with reflectors that marked the shoulders. I  had no intention of going that native, although later I was required by the local work ethic to venture out and wind up in fear of my life more than once. When in Nome…but here is a fine line between dogged and stupid, as deadly hazardous as driffing over the highway’s center line, as a few proud and hardy northerners learn every year in spite of the winter survival kits in their cars. Thankfully I survived my few crossings over that boundary into white-blind peril.

When people asked why I would take my family to a disaster zone and risk future hurricanes, I reminded them that people went back and lived Grand Forks, where the Red River of the North–not much of river to the eyes of anyone from south of the Delta–is bound behind dikes as massive as those that front the Mississippi in New Orleans to contain Spring floods. And  that in North Dakota the weather can (and routinely does) kill folk–most often for stupidity–six months out of the year, not once in a generation.

I have fond memories of that idyllic drive through the wedding cake Berkshires, of snow shoeing in old fashioned beavertails the woods along the Red River on  a perfectly windless and sunny ten degree Dakota day , mastering the yogic art of turning around in the brush in those beautiful,  clumsy things and discovering the mystic beauty of an ice whorl on the river, and taking my children sledding down those massive river dikes along The Red of the North.  Still, from now on I’ll take my Blizzards far out on Airline Highway in one of New Orleans’ few Dairy Queens. With lots of crushed Oreos, putting out of my mind the resemblance of that muddy gray treat to the exhaust-blasted sides of a suburban D.C. street in February.

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Living on Sponge Cake May 23, 2008

Posted by The Typist in NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Is anyone surprised that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who thought it might be OK to stuff expansion joints in flood walls with newspaper in lieu of water proof seals, might have gotten it wrong in rebuilding and reinforcing the 17th Street Canal levees and flood walls, one of the major failure points of the 2005 Federal Flood? Perhaps they should try Bounty. Remember it was the Quicker Picker Upper because it was More Absorbent.

Among other things, [the Corps] repaired the wall by driving interlocking sheets of steel 60 feet into the ground, compared with about 17 feet before the storm. The sheet metal is supposed to prevent canal water from seeping under the levee through the wet, toothpaste-like soil that lies beneath the city, which was built on reclaimed swamp and filled-in marsh.

Over the past few months, however, the corps found evidence that canal water is seeping through the joints in the sheet metal and then rising to the surface on the other side of the levee, forming puddles and other wet spots.

Engineers said the boggy ground is a more serious problem than the corps realizes. [ob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California at Berkeley,] said there is a roughly 40 percent chance of the 17th Street Canal levee collapsing if water rises higher than 6 feet above sea level. During Katrina, the water reached 7 feet in the canal.

Well, you would think that the events precipitating the Federal Flood would have led to some new thinking about how to build levees and other structures on our slippery, layered sponge cake soil, but the West Coast engineers think not. Just drive the piles deeper and hope for the best, which strikes me as an eminently 19th century solution.

It’s not as if this is a unique problem, or even a local one. I was surprised to learn while living in Fargo, N.D. that most large buildings required piles because of the characteristics of the bed of pre-historic Lake Agassiz–which in some age with a fancy scientific name rivaled the Great Lakes in size–upon which Fargo was built. I ended up helping my son research a short science essay on the subject and found the analogy to New Orleans fascinating. I sometimes think about the soils of Fargo and those 40+ foot dikes that keep the Red River of the North from drowning the place every spring.

Here’s an interesting tale from long ago about the building of a railroad embankment I used to drive along the route of (on Highway 10, a far-north, east-west analog of Highway 90 complete with parallel railroad tracks). Nothing under the sun, it seems, is new; and yet we seem to have such a confounded time figuring out how to deal with it all.

(Tim and Maitri, be sure to click the link. It’s definitely up your alley).

Palm to Pine December 27, 2006

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA.
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Here is a weird bit of synchronicity I discovered just a few blocks from my new office in downtown New Orleans. It’s a marker erected in 1917 by the Daughters of the American Revolution to mark the southern terminus of the Jefferson Highway. As the post points out, the road once stretched from New Orleans to Winnipeg, Canada.

jeffhwy.jpg

During my exile from New Orleans, I first settled in the upper midwest in a town called Detroit Lakes, MN, a sometimes sleepy little town an hour east of Fargo, N.D. It’s population would settle down to a quiet 7,000 or so but blossom into the tens of thousands during the busiest weekends of the summer lake season. One feature of that season was the Pine to Palm Golf Tournament, a name that always struck me as odd but which I never looked into, as I have no real interest in golf.

I have to assume that the name must come from the New Orleans-to-Winnipeg Highway. Growing up in New Orleans, Jefferson Highway was just an aging suburban strip of asphalt, an old Federal highway along the tracks that I thought was named after the suburban Jefferson Parish it traversed. Not until I returned home after 20 years away did I discover this pillar, which has been sitting at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Common Street waiting for me to discover it and feel the odd twinge of connection. I stood at the terminus of a road that ran only 100 miles from Detroit Lakes almost a century ago. Winnipeg was close to my home in Fargo as Lafayette is to New Orleans.

Small world.